Glenn Yu and Glenn C. Loury, City Journal, July 16, 2020
On June 24, amid great cultural upheaval and unrest, Glenn Yu reached out to Glenn Loury, his former teacher, to record his thoughts about the current moment. An edited version of their conversation follows.
Yu: In a lecture you gave for the Watson Institute a few years ago, you detail a formative moment for you, a meeting you had in Washington with black leaders years ago wherein you made Coretta Scott King cry. In your description of that event, you said that you went in there thinking that once they knew the facts, they would have to agree with you. But they didn’t. Do people disagree with you because they don’t have the same information or statistics as you? Or are these differences ideological?
Loury: Everybody pretty much has the same information available to them, but people are very selective of what information they avail themselves. There’s also a confirmation-bias problem that we all suffer from, where we want to pay attention to evidence that confirms our prior beliefs and disattend evidence that contradicts them.
Let’s take the question of the police use of lethal force. Do they use lethal force in a manner that is systematically racially biased? There are studies out there, and it’s not the kind of question you’re going to definitively answer with a single study, but the accumulation of people’s careful investigations should bear on what we think about the question. Nevertheless, I don’t think people care what’s in the appendices of these studies. I don’t think they care what attention went into the accumulation of the data set at the basis of the statistical analysis. I think they cherry-pick.
Here’s Roland Fryer, for instance, who has this controversial paper regarding police use of force in American cities, where he finds no racial differences between police use of lethal force once you’ve controlled for the circumstances of the situation. As I follow the discussion on Econ Twitter, Facebook, and popular media, Fryer is portrayed in two distinct ways. He is either, from a Heather Mac Donald point of view, a white knight riding in with the facts that finally prove what she’s been saying all along, or he’s a traitor sensationalist who wants to get famous by telling the white people what they want to hear. After some engagement with the details, I personally think Fryer has the better of the arguments. I think he raises very legitimate questions about how important the circumstances are of each encounter that lead police officers to use deadly force.
But to answer your question: Is disagreement factual or ideological? The answer is it’s ideological.
Yu: I’ve had conversations in the past few weeks that have ended very poorly; conversations that have spiraled out of control, where I’m suddenly a racist, so I’m on damage control. I just don’t know how to reach people in a meaningful way, and that’s very disturbing to me.
Loury: It is disturbing. I’m not a seer. My mouth is not a prayer book. I only say what I say based on my subjective assessment of it all. But it may be that, for a while anyway, there’s not going to be a whole lot of effective talking. It may well be that we have to imagine a world where effective deliberation and consensus is not within reach for us, and we’re going to have to manage that situation. It could get very bad. It could go to violence. This is what Sam Harris always says, and he’s got a point. He says that if we can’t reason together, then the only alternative for dispute resolution is violence.
I don’t know if you saw my piece in Quillette about the looting and the rioting, but I pick up these pieces published in the New York Times, respectable left-wing journals. I’m reading them, and the writer is saying, “America was founded on looting. What did you think the Boston Tea Party was?” Or, “You’re talking about looting when George Floyd lies dead? Oh, I see, black lives don’t matter as much as property.” These are, to my mind, incomprehensibly idiotic. I don’t mean that to cast aspersions. The civilization that we all enjoy rests upon a very fragile foundation. Look. I’m in my backyard. It’s very nice. I’ve got a lot of space. There’s a fence. The birds come. I have a lawn. It’s mine!
Now, if a homeless person comes and squats in my backyard, I call the police. I have him removed, forcibly. There should be no lack of clarity about whether George Floyd’s death somehow excuses or justifies burning a bodega to the ground that a Muslim immigrant spends his whole life building. Being confused about that, equivocating about that, splitting the difference about that—I don’t understand how we’re going to have a reasoned discussion. My thoughts go back to, protect civilization. Again, I know how that sounds. It’s hyperbolic. It’s exaggerated—but only a little! My gut response is that this is not the time for argument. This is the time to protect civilization and protect institutions. When people start toppling statues of Abraham Lincoln and spray-painting on statues of George Washington, “a slave owner,” things fall apart. The center cannot hold. We teeter on the brink of catastrophe.
Yu: What about the Ferguson Effect?
Loury: I think Fryer’s studies give us good evidence of the Ferguson Effect’s validity. This most recent paper is only one study, but the numbers are stunning. It looks at Ferguson, Riverside, Chicago, and Baltimore as cities where there were Michael Brown- or Freddie Gray-type viral incidents of police brutality, which caused a big public stir that then drew in a federal investigation of each respective local police department. He compares those to other cities, similar in demography and economic structure, but where there was no viral incident, or there was a viral incident, but it was not followed by an investigation by the federal government of the local department.
Fryer finds that violent crime is significantly higher in those cities that were investigated than it is in comparable cities in the years after the federal investigations. It’s a very comprehensive regression-discontinuity study. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s compelling. They estimate that these investigations caused an additional 900 homicides and an additional 30,000 or so felonies. Why? Because, he says, the amount of policing activity in those places diminished significantly with the onset of the federal inquiry, which he shows by documenting the decrease in stops made by police in those places. So he’s got two findings, really. First: police engagement with citizens seems to be sensitive to the extent to which police are placed in jeopardy by the scrutiny of the federal government. Second: the amount of violent crime in those places depends on the amount of police engagement because violent crime goes up when police engagement goes down. That’s an association, not a demonstration of causality, but it’s a very suggestive association.
Yu: Tell me, what is wrong with this characterization of history? Black men and women were brought to America to be exploited. They were brought here so that white agriculturalists in the South and white textile manufacturers in the North could make more money. For 400 years, they have been trying to make better lives. They tried to be landowners only to have their land stripped from them. They tried to be shopkeepers and they were dispossessed. They tried to participate in the political process but were disenfranchised. They fought wars for the country; they were treated with disdain. They tried to live productive lives; they were lynched. They tried to build communities in Tulsa and Rosewood. These were burned to the ground.
Now, Glenn Loury comes along. He looks at the conditions of black communities. He points at the homicide rate. He points at SAT scores. He points at the children growing up without fathers. He doesn’t point at white people. He points at black people. Glenn Loury points at them and says, “You are responsible for this. This is your fault. You need to fix your culture and stop blaming white people.” Am I mischaracterizing you?
Loury: That is an especially ungenerous representation of my position, but I don’t think it’s a mischaracterization of it. I think I would put it differently, but I don’t think I would necessarily disagree.
Okay, yeah, I’m black. Yeah, these people are black. And we descend from Africans, and the Africans were enslaved. But how determinative is that fact of history on the condition of my community today if I’m an African-American? How determinative is that on the condition of my family today, for what happens in my life today? Left out of your litany was the civil rights era. Left out was the advent of affirmative action. Left out was the elaboration of an extensive welfare state with vast reach; I’m talking about support for indigent families; Medicaid; food stamps and unemployment insurance. Each of those has had its own consequences on the development of social life.
Left out of your story are causal mechanisms. I’m talking about the family. I’m talking about how children are raised. This is not relevant? Human development doesn’t just take place in a school building. It takes place 24/7, 365. The values of the peer group with whom young people affiliate matters. Differences between ethnic groups in the social outcomes we’re interested in, like performance in educational institutions, surely have some relationship to patterns of culture, values, behavior, and the organization of families and communities from which these youngsters emerge, okay? You left some stuff out.
Things are not what they were in 1860, in 1910, in 1950, or even in 1980. Things are different now. Now, you get fired from your job if you’re a prominent person if you merely use the wrong word. Now, if you are a university administrator known to be hostile to affirmative action, your chances of employment outside of Liberty University in Virginia are essentially nil. There’s a vast middle class of African-Americans that didn’t exist a half-century ago. Compared with where else on the planet are your prospects better, even as a person of African descent, born from nothing? Where has the practical implementation of government resulted in a more dynamic, more open society than the one that you and I are privileged to live in right now? Does that sound like some kind of “America’s all great” ideology? Perhaps it does. But I’m willing to take that chance because I think it’s an empirical assessment. The question must always be: “Compared to what?”
Yu: If there’s no available policy intervention, and there’s also no way we can change people’s minds, then is it hopeless? Is disparity always going to be the case?
Loury: Yes. My answer is it’s hopeless. But let me rephrase the question, and I’m channeling Thomas Sowell now. You have two alternatives. You can live with disparities, or you can live in totalitarianism. Again, hyperbolic, I know. No, I’m not talking about Eastern Europe circa 1960, but look at it this way: there can’t be a disparity without somebody being on top. People don’t recognize this.
What groups are on top? What about the Jews? You could say, “There are too many Jews in positions of influence.” If there are too few black lawyers who are partners in big law firms, doesn’t it follow that are too many Jews who are partners at these big firms? If there are too few blacks who are professors of mechanical engineering at places like Carnegie Mellon, why aren’t there too many Korean professors at these places?
If the system is structured to deny the potentiality of black humanity, then the system is structured as to affirm the humanity of the particular groups that are overrepresented in the prized venues of American life. People don’t realize that they’re playing with fire when they take these disparities as ipso facto evidence of systemic failure. They insist on wholesale interventions into people’s exercise of their liberty in order to enact a reduction or elimination of disparities, yet a world without any disparities is a world where you don’t have so many—name your group—who’ve got so much money or so many prizes. There are only so many positions. There is no under-representation without over-representation. This is arithmetic.
What is the nature of the world that we live in? Why would I ever expect that there would be parity across the board between ethnic, racial, cultural, and ancestral population groups in an open society? It’s a contradiction because difference is a very fact of groupness. What do I mean by a group? Well, it’s genes, to some degree; it’s culture; it’s networks of social affiliation, of intermarriage and kinship. I mean the shared narrative, the same hopes, the dreams, the stories. I mean the practices of parenting and filial piety and whatever else there might be.
A group is a group. It has characteristics. Those characteristics matter for whether you play in the NBA. They matter for whether you learn to master the violin or the piano. They matter for whether you pursue technical subjects or choose to become a humanist or a scientist. They matter for the food that you eat. They matter for how many children you raise and how you raise them. They matter as to the age when you first have sex. They matter for all those things, and I think everyone would agree with that.
But now you’re telling me that they don’t matter for who becomes a partner in a law firm? They don’t matter for who becomes a chair in the Philosophy Department somewhere? Groupness implies disparity because groupness, if taken seriously, implies differences in ways of living life. Not everybody wants to play the fiddle. Not everybody wants to dunk a basketball. Not everybody is frightened to death that their parents are going to be disappointed with them if they come home with an A-minus. Not everybody is susceptible to being swayed into a social affiliation that requires them to commit a violent crime in order to prove their bona fides. Groups differ. Groups are not evenly distributed across society. That’s inevitable. If you insist that those be flattened, you’re only going to be able to succeed by imposing a totalitarian regime that monitors everything and jiggers everything, recomputing and refiguring things until we’ve got the same number of blacks in proportion to their population and the same number of second-generation Vietnamese immigrants in proportion to their population being admitted to Caltech or the Bronx High School of Science. I don’t want to live in that world.